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Exploring the relationship between alcoholism and serotonin one step at a time

  • Previous research has shown that alcoholics have altered and/or injured serotonin systems.
  • The specifics of serotonin abnormalities in alcoholics remain unclear.
  • A new study uses a depression and anxiety medication called citalopram to investigate if the serotonin transporter is altered in alcoholics.
  • The serotonin transporter was not found to be responsible for serotonin abnormalities.

The brain's serotonin neurotransmitter system has been associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, anti-social personality disorder, and alcohol dependence. Although research has shown that alcoholics appear to have an altered and/or injured serotonin system, the specifics of those alterations remain unclear. In the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers use a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor called citalopram, commonly used for treatment of depression and anxiety, as a pharmacological probe that binds to the serotonin transporter, the site in the serotonin system responsible for "turning off" serotonin excitation. They then examine the responses in abstinent, alcohol-dependent men of three hormones known to increase when the serotonin system is excited: adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), cortisol, and prolactin.

"When we say serotonin system," explained Gary S. Wand, professor of medicine and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and corresponding author for the study, "we are referring to a complicated neurotransmitter circuitry that includes the production of serotonin, the factors that regulate the degradation and the reuptake of serotonin, as well as the activity and number of receptors that respond to serotonin. So this means a complex system.

"What we wanted to do for this study was use a very specific probe of the serotonin system, a functional probe that would shake up and excite serotonin by binding to just a
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